Mal has not had an easy life. He’s struggled to overcome a lot of roadblocks and hardships as he built himself a life as a mechanic, despite a serious handicap. He’s admired rancher Dan from afar but never dreamed events would play out to land him in the amazing spot of being able to do a real service for his secret hero. Can he maintain his cool and a safe distance when they’re sharing a house and working to resolve a dangerous mystery?
Dan says he does not have employees but friends who help him run the ranch he inherited from his father. Challenged by his younger step-brother and facing dangerous sabotage to his truck, he enlists a young mechanic to help solve the puzzle. He’d always wanted a real brother or a partner he could trust but his step-brother is not the right guy to fill that role. How about Mal, who brings some fine but rare qualities to the Flying W?
Mal finished the work on Dan’s truck by about ten. When he went into the office to tell Ben, the other man told him to go ahead and call Dan himself. Mal gulped, then obeyed. His good hand stayed steady as he dialed the number on the invoice on his own phone. He knew it already, but didn’t want to misdial. Dan answered on the second ring.
“Your truck is ready, Mr. Winslow. I didn’t find anything else of concern, so you can pick it up whenever you’re ready.”
“Good. Thanks. I should be down in an hour or two. You’ll be there, won’t you? I have a proposition to discuss with you and Ben, one I want to pitch to you both.”
“Uhn, err ... Okay. Yes, sir, I expect to be here. I usually eat my lunch right here and I know Ben does, too.”
It took Mal a few minutes to recover from the shock of that word, proposition. What the hell could Dan want or plan that he intended to discuss with both Mal and Ben? He couldn’t think of a single thing that made any sense. Surely his work had been acceptable, hadn’t it? Anyway, a proposition didn’t sound like a complaint or an issue with what had been done on the Silverado so far. When Ben got off the phone, Mal told him about it. Ben just shrugged.
“Okay. I don’t plan to go anywhere unless Janey goes into labor. According to the doctor, that shouldn’t happen for a few weeks yet.”
Promptly at one o’clock, Fred Hampton’s dusty old Ford pulled up in front of the garage. Dan got out and strode over to the office door. Mal had been watching and made his way across the three-bay garage to enter the room by the side door.
Ben looked up from the desk and smiled a greeting. “Hey, Dan, we’ve sure been seeing a lot of you lately. Good for us, I guess, but not so much for you. Mal told me you wanted to talk to both of us.”
Mal’s glance slid back and forth between the two of them. Ben looked relaxed and unconcerned. Dan’s expression showed a bit more anxiety, along with a shade of eagerness.
“Yeah, I’ve got an idea to pitch to you both and I hope you’ll agree to it.”
He looked at each of them keenly before he went on. “Fred’s son is home from the army on thirty days’ leave so he’s hanging around the ranch without a lot to do. His MOS -- that’s his official work duty in Army lingo -- is mechanic and he seems to be damn good. It’s not that I don’t trust him, but he’s been friends with my stepbrother and maybe too closely tied to other people at the ranch. That’s why I’m not asking him to do this, but I need someone to keep an eye on that damned truck of mine twenty-four-seven until we get this sorted out.”
He paused and drew a deep breath. “I won’t leave you in the lurch, Ben, because I know you have to have a good mechanic here, but what if Curt Hampton fills in and Mal comes out to the ranch for a week or two at least?”
Mal almost swallowed his tongue. Holy shit! A week at Dan’s ranch, probably living in the house or at least right there? He’d got the impression the garage where Dan kept the truck now was either adjoining or very close to the main house. How could he keep his secret longings under wraps if he was right there, seeing his hero and idol at close range all the time? He’d probably make a total ass of himself before it was over. He just knew it. He started to shake his head.
Ben caught his eye with a sharp glance. Perhaps his boss wasn’t aware of Mal’s carefully hidden feelings, but would he agree to this crazy switch? Please, say no!
Turning back to Dan, Ben shrugged. “I guess that’d work. You say this Hampton kid is reliable and has good skills? I won’t have anyone I can’t rely on.”
“I’m sure he’s good. I’ve known him since he was a kid. He’s about twenty-three or four now, and I think an E-5, which is getting up in the enlisted ranks. He can’t be a fuck-up to get that far. I’d trust his dad with my life and I have no reason not to trust him. It’s just that an outsider will serve my purpose best right now.”
“Well, I guess I can go along with that,” Ben said. He rubbed his jaw, as if pondering the notion. “If my wife has this kid early, though, I might need to get Mal back for a few days to run things while I’m in and out. Your man wouldn’t be as familiar with the operation as Mal is.”
He turned to look at Mal. “You okay with this?”
Although Mal wanted to say no, maybe he wanted to say yes more. He really wasn’t sure. After a few seconds, he nodded. “Sure, I’ll do it if it’s what you both want.”